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One For The Ages

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released.

Cover art for <em>Divers.</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist.
Courtesy of the artist.
Cover art for Divers.

There's a point in most published interviews with Joanna Newsom where the harpist, singer and songwriter genially pulls the switch on her interlocutor's train of thought. She'll gently say that interpretation belongs to her fans: They have the right to unpack them, to argue endlessly in chat rooms or moving cars about the "layers, layers, layers" of her lyrics and her semi-symphonic or chamber-popping song structures. Comparing what she does to the mystery of a great joke, Newsom speaks like the folk music-trained poetry lover that she is, calmly imploring clarity mongers to remember that songs gather in meanings as they move through space and time, and though there's fun in pinning down sources and allusions, a fixed end point should not be the goal. "This is a really big world," Joanna Newsom generously told one persistent questioner a decade ago. "I think there's room for just about everything, every idea you have."

What could be a more delightful gift than this permission to run wild within the tangled loops of Newsom's compositions? Yet anyone who loves to plunge into her music must admit the urge to almost immediately hyperlink out of it: to master these thickets by naming the sources with which Newsom has seeded them. If her music has the lushness of a garden, it's really a labyrinth, a game; all but the most casual listeners will soon find themselves trying to map it. The playful mood of her reference-laden puzzlers has been heightened by her very theatrical singing style. On her first two albums Newsom favored a word-bending approach that involved tightening her throat and bouncing syllables across her soft palate. But her tone has become much more open and resonant. Her last album, Have One On Me, earned her the occasional comparison to Billie Holiday. On her new release, Divers, her first in five years, Kate Bush seems like a deliberate touchstone, the chameleon soprano whose octave-spanning dexterity Newsom now frequently invokes without strictly imitating.

Newsom's better grasp on her voice these days means that she can now be its director rather than merely letting its eccentricities lead her. Always more carefully structured and modulated than some suspected, Newsom's songs have nonetheless sometimes given in to a kind of antic hyperbole. Whatever tales or ideas she was sharing, what people could best hear was her delivery. Now, though her sound remains dipped in filigree, her vision leads. Her earlier work was picaresque; Divers is novelistic. It conveys plenty of incantation and playfulness, but is dominated by clear musical themes, memorable characters and a central preoccupation, expressed in the form of a proverb in the album's first song, "Anecdotes": "Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do."

Like short stories forming a non-linear but narratively cohesive whole, the eleven songs on Divers travel from war zones to the wilderness, from a darkened coastline to a comfortable cottage in the hills. Their protagonists may be alive or dead, they may be ghosts or babies just born. Newsom is the omniscient but shifty narrator, speaking in an "I" that both inhabits her characters and stands a bit apart from them, showing them up. Her deepest concerns are about the perils of fixing meaning. Like that other cultivated innocent, William Blake, Newsom senses a godlike mystery at the heart of the imaginative process and recognizes its parallel in the entropy of nature, what she calls, at the album's climax, "the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life." But she also knows that every artist — every person, in fact, who uses language, or traces the edges of her own body in the distance from the ones she longs to embrace — inevitably stills the rapture of fecundity by trying to give it shape. In that shape is the shadow of mortality. The sometimes rambling, sometimes rushing act of telling that is Divers ends mid-word.

The album begins with a battle scene and ends with a description of a woman laboring to birth. (A subtle reference in that final song, "Time, As a Symptom," reveals that the woman may be the goddess Demeter, creator of the Earth's seasonal flow.) "Tell me why is the pain of birth lighter born than the pain of death?" Newsom asks more than once in these songs, seeking to capture the ways in which the miraculous agony of reproduction reflects, is threatened by, and occasionally defeats civilization's march of nation-building, culture-crafting and nature-trashing. Though Newsom has always bound herself less tightly to gendered imagery than her airy soprano would suggest, on Divers she does ultimately seem to come down on the side of a feminized ability to make life even under the weight of mortality. She repeatedly contrasts the cyclical, seemingly freer or at least more independent lives of female figures with the experiences of men driven toward heroic tasks, including war. But Newsom also recognizes that the feminine position can also freeze a soul: her women walk, they labor, but they also wait and wonder after men. "I stand outside this woman's work," Kate Bush once sang, imagining herself as a man witnessing a tricky childbirth; Newsom stands both within and outside femininity, marveling at its resilience but questioning its tendency to paralyze.

The album's title track makes these tensions clear. It's one of Newsom's most beautiful and accessible songs, a seven-minute rhapsody voiced by a woman observing a diver whom she desires, but cannot really know. "I know we must abide, each by the rules that bind us here," Newsom sings in her rich, restrained lower register as her harp and keyboard lines wash against each other in thickening arpeggios. "The divers, and the sailors, and the women on the pier." A 21st-century feminist might balk at this seeming acceptance of women's passivity, but in ways that echo Jean Rhys's retelling of Jane Eyre, Angela Carter's fairy tales or Toni Morrison's forays into the fantastic, Divers digs into a centuries-deep well of stories told about men who act and fight and die, and women who watch and wait and hold memories. Newsom the artist is the diver, too, exploring the defining narratives that make rifts in the infinite.

Though Newsom has said that this is her first album based on an over-arching concept — a musical one, a peculiarly notated harmonic system that runs throughout its eleven songs in subtle arcs — the trajectories Divers takes also make it feel like her most eclectic work. Songs share melodies, harmonic elements, even lyrics; but because she and her longtime co-producer Noah Georgeson worked with several different arrangers, each stands as a distinct entity. Nico Muhly's strings add Fantasia flair to "Anecdotes," while the melodically nearly identical "Sapokanikan," arranged by Ryan Francesconi, has a hurdy-gurdy feel grounded in trombone and percussion. Dave Longstreth brings the layered vocal sound of his band Dirty Projectors to the climax of "Time, As A Symptom." Francesconi's guitars add an old-timey women's blues touch to some songs, which Newsom answers by exploring her chest voice — not belting, but finding a different register. A chorus of musical saws arranged by Dan Cantrell adds mystical eeriness to the otherwise intimate parlor ballad "The Things I Say." The different choices her collaborators make are like turns within the labyrinth, each opening up to the other, but covering different ground.

All of this makes Divers a thick tome that counterposes and blends many points of view — a saga whose novelistic parallels are David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Today's most ambitious fiction writers rise to the challenge of their readers' Web-expanded worldviews by crafting epics that trip through time and confound the wish for a contained reading experience; they play on readers' desire to fire the synapses connecting multiple realms. Newsom draws light lines between a ghost army in battle with its own future incarnation and a hermit woman resisting a pursuer who might be a different version of herself; the woman watching the diver on the pier, and another who sits inside, pondering a lover who has fled into a Paris sunset; a mysterious chameleon evading a pursuer and an artisan living at peace beyond the city's claustrophobia. In crisis or in stasis, each of Newsom's characters fights time — a memory that's fading, a climax that kills, a sun that sets — and finally faces it. "Time is taller than Space is wide," sing Newsom's ghost soldiers, trapped in a temporal loop. In the end, though, time's dominance is something different, less fantastic: It's the rule of law, of humanity's fundamental act of making meaning, which as other myths have told us, makes us aware of death.

The sadness that lends gravity to Divers is tied to Newsom's awareness that the urge to make meaning, the need to live within time, dooms humanity as much as it defines us. People cannot simply exist, like the ear of corn Newsom admires in "Time, As A Symptom," whose brief growth and harvest unfolds in unselfconscious silence. "In our lives is a common sense that relies on the common fence that divides, and attends," she sings in the stark "A Pin-Light Bent," a song that feels very much aligned with the cruel clarity of Emily Dickinson. Newsom ponders huge forces in contrast to this human narrowing: a spiritual Great Light, the pull of the ocean. But the narrowing is human experience. She recognizes that her own consciousness only grasps the light that streams through a pinhole. Newsom examines this self-defining fall (or dive) into legibility in song-chapters that are both magical and tragic. She's called them love stories. Why? Perhaps because love is the most personal way of making meaning, as well as the emotion connected to the body's creative act, the conception of new life. Love also creates loss. It makes people aware of chronology, of the measurement that mires us in fear of how short our lives will be.

Befitting one whose musical foundation is the grounded majesty of the folk harp, Newsom still finds hope amidst Time's ravages. As the music critic Jonah Weiner has pointed out, that word whose amputation concludes Divers could be combined with the very first one in "Anecdotes," forming one certainly relevant to Newsom's Emersonian optimism: "Transcending." The rousing final notes of Divers, fed by wild drums and birdsong, do lift the spirits aloft. Yet in its circular way, Divers presents another central image, a more domestic one, near its opening. Before fully launching into her tales of battles and the banished, of men in the air or at the bottom of the ocean and women left behind, Newsom offers another story within the folds of "Anecdotes." Her lyric starts out in the field, where one soldier calls to another; but it ends up in the kitchen, where an unknown spirit (maternal? Internal?) welcomes Newsom's drifting, mutating "I": Daughter, the kettle's on. It's just a moment, cast as an echo, quickly drifting behind the larger action scenes Newsom directs. Yet it haunts. That wandering "I" does have a home, not where epics are often set, but where they may first be shaped, as words around a homely kitchen table, with women sipping tea. Will you come down, before the sun is gone? That motherly voice presents a possibility. Newsom doesn't pause, but she has given us that background: In the really big world, she can still locate a home.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.